The Unseen Layers: Why User Interviews Are an Irreplaceable Asset

11 Jun 2024

In the world of startups and technology, we're perpetually in a race against obsolescence. We’re constantly aiming to create the next game-changing product, the next Uber or Airbnb. I can't count the number of times I've heard this from startup founders.

Yet, it's startling how many companies, bloated with engineering talent and flush with venture capital, fail miserably in their product ventures. Often, these catastrophes can be traced back to a misunderstanding of the users themselves, and nowhere is this insight more potent than in the art of user interviews.

The capability to master this skill isn't just a line on a resume — it's the invisible thread that stitches the user’s world to the fabric of the product. This is precisely where the work on product value begins, and the skill of value engineering becomes essential.

Value engineering - is the sphere of my scientific interests as an economist and also a topic for research in the upcoming years.

The Unspoken Art of User Interviews

Surveys and analytics may provide a cursory understanding of user behavior, but they lack the depth and nuance that come from one-on-one interactions. Think of data as a bird's-eye view of a vast forest; it shows you the expanse but not the individual types of trees, the variations in foliage, or the unique ecosystems that exist within it.

User interviews, on the other hand, are a walk through that forest, a close-up inspection that offers irreplaceable insights. You learn not just what types of trees are there but why they grow where they do, how they interact with other elements, and what conditions might lead to a forest fire.

So, what makes user interviews so invaluable?

They sit at the intersection of design and empathy, a roadmap imprinted with signposts that direct you toward what the user actually wants. Empathetic design isn't just a buzzword; it's a form of reverence for the user. Imagine you're an archaeologist excavating an ancient site. Each layer you remove uncovers artifacts — physical echoes of past lives.

A user interview similarly peels back the layers of generalized assumptions and statistics, revealing the genuine needs, wants, and frustrations of the individual.

This is not merely beneficial - it's the essence of risk mitigation.

The product landscape is littered with the ruins of features and even whole products that were constructed on the shaky grounds of assumption. The capacity to validate or invalidate a hypothesis before dedicating significant resources to it is as crucial as the hypothesis itself.

Especially in 2024, when venture investors are giving fewer funds to risky experiments and demanding more guarantees for returns on their investments. In fact, hypothesis testing becomes even more valuable for startup founders in such an environment.

The Preparation Paradox: Balancing Structure with Spontaneity

As you prepare for a user interview, you'll likely be tempted to script every question to control every variable. This impulse, while understandable, can be limiting.

A rigid script may provide structure, but it also blocks spontaneity and creativity — two elements often essential for breakthrough insights. Therefore, your preparation should not be a straitjacket but a framework. It should be something that provides a sense of direction but allows enough freedom for unplanned detours.

It's akin to jazz improvisation: the musicians know the key and the time signature, but the magic happens in the spontaneous interaction between these constraints. The same applies to user interviews.

Your questions set the stage, but the user's answers write the script. And sometimes, like a jazz musician hitting a note they never intended, you might stumble upon an insight so profound that it changes the course of your entire product strategy.

Here, I can recommend a very useful book called "The Mom Test: How to Talk to Customers & Learn if Your Business is a Good Idea When Everyone is Lying to You" by Rob Fitzpatrick.

The Execution: Where Theory Meets Reality

The actual conduct of the interview is a balancing act between the scientific rigor of a research study and the empathic engagement of a therapy session. You need to make the user comfortable enough to share honest opinions while maintaining enough detachment to observe patterns and anomalies.

Techniques like the "Five Whys" can be invaluable here. When a user expresses a preference or a pain point, asking "Why?" five times in succession can unearth deeper, less obvious motivations or issues.

But this technique isn't just about getting to the root of a single user's response; it's about digging through layers of social, cultural, and psychological soil to find the bedrock of human behavior.

The insights gathered here aren't just data points to be plugged into a spreadsheet; they're clues to a larger puzzle — a puzzle that, when solved, reveals the face of your user. The actual interview is a stage, and like any skilled performer, a PM must master the art of rapport.

The quality of information you extract is directly proportional to the level of comfort and trust you establish. The interview is a dynamic entity, evolving in real-time, and it's your task to steer this organism. Your questions must oscillate between the open-ended and the specific, creating a rhythm that guides the conversation naturally from qualitative to quantitative data and back again.

Furthermore, the mechanics of documenting this process must not be left to chance. Whether you employ a dedicated transcription service or advanced machine learning algorithms for natural language processing, the aim is absolute fidelity to the spoken word. The data you collect serves as the raw material for your product decisions; any impurity or error introduced here is magnified down the line.

Synthesis and Strategy: The Alchemy of Turning Data into Gold

Finally, the post-interview phase — analysis and implementation — is where the alchemy happens.

The raw responses and metrics are your base metals, and your analysis transmutes them into gold: actionable insights. Sophisticated tools can assist you in this, but the human element — your interpretative lens — remains paramount.

This phase is as much an art as it is a science, requiring not just analytical skills but also creative intuition. It demands the ability to see not just trees but also the forest — to understand not just individual responses but also overarching patterns.

This synthesis isn't a solitary endeavor. It requires a cross-disciplinary approach involving value engineers, designers, marketers, and sometimes even advisors. Each brings a different lens to view the data, and the composite picture is often more revealing than any single perspective.

The Call to Mastery: Your Next Steps

Mastering user interviews is not an optional skill; it's a cornerstone of effective product management and value engineering.

As technology advances, we might even see AI-driven tools that provide real-time sentiment analysis during interviews, taking the practice to an entirely new level.

But no matter how advanced the tools get, the fundamental skill will remain the same: the ability to understand, empathize with, and learn from your users.